Kempner: Tower of blight at Spaghetti Junction has chance for do-over

A feud that helped create a 15-story tower of blight near Spaghetti Junction apparently won’t be the final word on one of metro Atlanta’s most visible buildings.

It’s not necessarily that two squabbling business partners have ended their years of battling. It’s just that they’ve been cut off from the building they owned and fought over.

It’s about time, if you ask people who’ve been around it.

The old Presidential Tower — once known as the Presidential Hotel — has been a hot mess for years. It’s one of the most prominent local examples of how difficult it is to kill blight once it takes hold.

The cylindrical tower is so visible from I-85 and I-285 that one potential buyer envisioned wrapping it in advertising to look like a giant Coke can. Others considered it for apartments, condos (again), hotels (again), student housing and self-storage units.

Instead, architect Dean Peacock of Peacock Partnership is focusing on senior living rentals. He recently paid $1.5 million for the property — several million dollars less than it sold for in the 1990s.

Peacock said he hopes to start renovating the tower and constructing a 12-story building beside it later this year. It could take 18 months to complete. Combined, the buildings would have about 400 units. And he’s prepping to put a new exterior on the tower plus a significant interior renovation.

He may need approval from the county for the tower’s existing height. DeKalb may require installation of sewage holding tanks because limited system capacity in the area. And several units are still owned by other parties, including one that controls access to the tower’s roof. Combine that with troubles Peacock already faced trying to buy a decaying building beset by warring owners.

“I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess,” Peacock said.

Others involved in the property in recent years could say the same.

“It was by far the hardest real estate deal I’ve ever been involved in,” said Greg Hays, who cleans up financial hairballs, like bankrupt companies, the aftermaths of frauds and distressed properties.

He was brought in by a judge to be a receiver on the property after years of litigious bickering between its main owners.

It took Hays three years and help from attorney Henry Sewell to sort out: title issues, a bankruptcy filing by an owner they contend was attempting to sandbag the tower’s sale, tax record problems, buyer concerns, fire and building code violations and condo owners who resisted selling at low prices or couldn’t be tracked down.

Taylor Brown of Greystone Brown Real Estate Advisors said he gave tours to more than 50 prospective buyers.

Some made offers, but often they dropped out after realizing what they were up against.

DeKalb County Commissioner Nancy Jester told me initially she was convinced the tower should be torn down — “it is not terribly attractive” — and replaced with glorious office buildings.

“It’s right there at the front door of DeKalb,” she said.

The area never blossomed the way some expected. In the 1980s, when the intersection of I-85 and I-285 was reconfigured into spaghetti on steroids, a DeKalb chamber leader predicted high-rise office buildings where the Presidential Tower had been the tallest thing around. It didn’t happen.

Now, we’re starting over.

“Blight remediation does not happen quickly, even in the best of scenarios,” Jester said. “It’s not as easy and one, two, three, cite you and we go in and knock it down.”

Many of the Presidential Tower’s interior walls are concrete, which means re-configuring unit sizes is generally prohibitively expensive. So is tearing down the building.

The tower gained infamy in the 1980s as a favored spot DeKalb cops used for free drinks, food and rooms for sexual trysts. It also served as an unauthorized mini precinct.

At various times, the building sat vacant. Eventually it was turned into residential condos: an attempt to rejuvenate a place that was showing its age.

Then two local business partners — Hsueh “Vincent” Lu and Habib Osta — bought much of the property.

Osta told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution several years ago that he hoped to triple his investment, which included the $1 million purchase and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on renovations.

Instead, it looks like Lu and Osta may have been undone by each other. They fought over money and responsibilities, suing each other several times. Tax, water and electric bills went unpaid, and services were cut off. Without basics and a working elevator, the building sat vacant. Insurance lapsed.

Then vandals, thieves and squatters worked their magic. Metal was stripped from the tower. Graffiti and worse were everywhere inside. Jester, the county commissioner, visited with a police officer.

“It was just horrific,” she said.

Drivers on Spaghetti Junction’s bridges could see the tower’s busted windows.

DeKalb County considered the building a public nuisance, according to Hay’s and Sewell’s reports to the courts. And Lu and Osta “were unable to agree on virtually any issue, no matter how small or trivial. …”

I tried to chat with both men. I didn’t hear back from Osta or his attorney. Lu’s attorney told me his client didn’t want to talk.

They still have to figure out how to divvy up proceeds from the property’s sale, after expenses are taken out, Hays told me.

“Instead of a building to fight about, they’ve got money to fight about.”

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